Power Grows as Ethics Fade
The Frederick County government, through executive action, purchased advertisements with public funds to influence the voting of its citizens. The subject of the ad was two ballot questions making changes to the county’s charter.
The charter is a legal document that grants authority of, and prescribes limits on, the county government. It prescribes the legislative process to amend the charter. Generally, as I understand it, the legislature drafts and approves the amendment, the executive signs or vetoes the proposal, and the issue, if passed, is then sent to a general county election for the people to decide on the amendment.
A question has been raised regarding the ethics of the county using public funds to pay for ads to influence the public's vote on the issue. I find the question interesting.
My first inclination was to search for precedent. I thought of various government-funded ad campaigns to fight drugs or promote milk use. So, government entities regularly purchase advertisements to promote established, funded government programs. While I don’t like paying taxes to pay for ads to promote the milk lobby, it is legal.
But, what about elections? I could not think of a single ad funded by a sitting government entity that asked me to vote a certain way. I think there is a reason I cannot remember any. Because it is wrong and perhaps illegal in many cases. However, the county executive’s propaganda minister found an obscure Maryland court case that might establish a legal precedent for Maryland governments buying influence for a ballot issue.
The amendments in question are changes to the charter of the county government. They are changes to the authorities and limits of that government. The changes were introduced by the sitting government. Now what do most sitting government officials want? Do they want more or less authority? Do they want more or fewer limits on their reach?
To address the questions, let's look at the legislative and executive history of our country. Pick a level: federal, state, county, or city. Take the last 5, 10 or 1000 legislative or executive actions. What was the net affect on government authorities and limits in your sample?
I would guess the net effect is the legislature granted themselves more authority and withdrew limits. Occasionally the judiciary will impose or enforce limits on government power, but the main trend of the executive and legislature is to grant more power to the government while increasing its reach.
In our county, the legislative and executive branch wanted a change to the charter controlling them, so they spent taxpayer funds to pay for advertisements to encourage us to vote the way they want.
So, where is the counter to that? Is there a balancing counter to an executive's discretionary spending authority to purchase ads? One could argue, in theory at least, that the opposition resides in the people. In theory, a citizen's group could form, raise funds and purchase ads. Fair enough or not fair at all?
I'll argue "not fair at all." First, the county used the threat of force to acquire funds from the people (taxes). Opponents to the government position must compel citizens to willingly pay to oppose the government proposal. Second, the logistical realities of organizing to oppose the government position are real and significant, while the government can act quickly with our money.
Thus, I have concluded it is absolutely improper for the government to spend public funds trying to influence the people to vote to support the sitting government position on a charter change. There is no realistic balancing voice.
The executive's use of our money to try to influence our vote was an unethical abuse of power. I don’t care how many lawyers she can pay to say otherwise, it was unethical and should be, if not already, illegal. There are not enough laws and rules to constrain a government that is unconstrained by ethics.
A 7-0 County Council vote does not justify using my tax money for political ads to push the council agenda. I suppose the opposition could argue since my elected officials want the change, then they should be authorized to pay any sum of money to promote the change.
But, then I counter, if the council fully represents us on charter issues and can pay money to sway the public, then why does the charter require a general vote on charter questions?
Because we have a say in the rules that apply to the council. That is why charter changes go to a general election and that is why it is wrong for the council or executive to use our money to try to influence the outcome of the general vote. Let the council’s adoring fans raise private funds to promote the issue.
Perhaps my abstract argument needs an example or analogy to clarify my position.
Imagine our U.S. Congress voting on an amendment to the Constitution that grants absolute legal immunity to top government officials.
It says, “No past, present or future member of The House of Representatives, President or Vice President of the United States or Senate-approved appointees of any President shall be arrested or convicted of any crime whatsoever nor shall the United States support the extradition of said persons to any other nation for any prosecution.”
The popular amendment passes 435-0 in the House and 100-0 in the Senate. Now it moves on to the states where three fourths of them are required for ratification. Congress, excited about the amendment, authorizes $50 billion annually for advertisements in the states to promote the amendment as the states consider ratification.
The National Ad Council starts doling out the advertisement funds. About $1 billion goes to each state. The Ad Council uses its discretion and only purchases ads from publications and networks that support the amendment as demonstrated by other articles, commentaries and editorials. That way the Ad Council maximizes the impact of their amendment promotion budget. The media see an easy source of cash and are glad to shift their content in support of the amendment, and soon state legislators see overwhelming support for the Constitutional amendment.
Some grass roots groups raise some money to oppose the amendment, but it’s hard to find volunteers and donors. In some cases, they can’t even buy ads due to rumors the Ad Council will cut off media outlets if they sell ads to “the opposition.”
One by one, state legislators feel the pressure of the compelling ad arguments. Lacking any significant opposition, the legislators see no reason to oppose the general will of the people as reflected in the media. The required three fourths of the states approve the amendment.
And there you have it. Congress proposed a change of the document that constrains them. They used the people’s money to pay for promotion of the change. That’s just democracy in action. Right?